Australia to raise rare-earth output amid China supply concerns

PERTH • Australia will step up production of rare earths and other militarily sensitive "tech metals", the country's defence minister said yesterday, as doubts grow over the reliability of Chinese supplies.

Ms Linda Reynolds told an audience in Perth that resource-rich Australia had deposits that could safeguard supplies for allies including the United States and Britain.

So-called tech minerals are used in everything from smartphones and lasers to avionic systems and electronic warfare technologies. But trade tensions have led China, a major producer, to warn that supplies could be choked.

China produces more than 95 per cent of the world's rare earths, and the US relies on it for upwards of 80 per cent of its imports.

Ms Reynolds stressed the importance of Western allies obtaining the metals from outside China.

"(In) Australia, we have at least 40 per cent of the known reserves of tech metals, whether it's lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite but also most of the rare earths that our current technology and our lifestyles today rely on," she said.

She added that the issue had been discussed at length at recent Australia-US ministerial consultations and in discussions with British counterparts.

"What we want to do is make sure we have a guarantee of supply," she told reporters in Perth.

"A lot of our defence equipment and capability actually uses rare earths in its production."

The key issue for Australia, the US and other allies "is the continuity and guarantee of supply of these rare earths and tech metals... and is an issue of national importance", she said.

Mr Jeffrey Wilson, head of research at the Perth USAsia Centre, said the global trade in rare earths per year is worth about US$350 million (S$486 million), with China also having a disproportionate share of processed products such as carbonates and magnets.

In the case of dysprosium - which can be used in magnets for electric vehicles or nuclear reactor rods - it is 100 per cent.

"China's near monopoly means there's no real genuine or reliable international market for the rare earth trade," Mr Wilson said.

"Its outsize market power also gives the Chinese government considerable scope to control and shape global trade patterns," he added.

Ms Reynolds' comments followed news of an agreement between German industrial giant Thyssenkrupp and a mining company developing a rare earth project in northern Australia.

Sydney-listed Northern Minerals has announced that Thyssenkrupp Materials Trading would take 100 per cent of the heavy rare earth carbonate from its A$56 million (S$53 million) Browns Range pilot plant project.

Northern Minerals had earlier terminated a two-year-old agreement with a Chinese firm.

The Australian company aims to develop the world's first significant producer of dysprosium outside of China.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2019, with the headline 'Australia to raise rare-earth output amid China supply concerns'. Print Edition | Subscribe